To be a force for good in the world, we must strengthen democracy in South Africa
It is often said that foreign policy begins at home, and it is, therefore, a sign of our political malaise that South Africans no longer wrestle with our role in the world. This occurred to me while accompanying President Cyril Ramaphosa on his historic whistle-stop tour of four West African nations.
This week marks the eighth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing and, in light of the fallout over the knee-jerk and unfair red listing of South Africa and some of our neighbours following the discovery of the Omicron variant, one cannot help but reflect on how our image has changed.
The Mandela era, when we basked in the afterglow of the political deal of 1994 and stood as a beacon of democracy and justice in the world, is long gone. Gone too are the days when Thabo Mbeki laid out a vision of South Africa in the vanguard of a rising Africa developing its own solutions and standing against neocolonialism.
After Mbeki, South Africa’s global image was tarnished by State Capture and the economic and governance weaknesses that made us less of an inspiration and a model for other countries. Our moral standing was eroded by lapses of courage such as denying a visa to the Dalai Lama, the refusal to arrest former Sudanese leader Omar al Bashir and unwillingness to speak out against human rights abuses in Africa.
Our reputation on the continent was tarnished by the xenophobic violence unleashed on African immigrants. Our immigration policies also did us no favours in terms of attracting skills, investments and tourism.
Today, South Africa has recovered much respect in the global community. We stand for wholesome international relations and take up politically important causes, including Palestinian rights.
We are friends of the multilateral agencies and a voice for Africa and the Global South on issues such as vaccine apartheid and global assistance in the wake of the pandemic. President Ramaphosa is widely respected as a democrat and a voice of reason among the world’s leaders.
But there is a sense that South Africa, especially since the State Capture years, punches below its weight. How can we remain relevant at this major inflection point in world affairs?
Covid-19 has had a devastating human and economic impact, and the recovery has to involve a major rethink of global power relations and public health. The World Bank estimates that Africa faces a shortfall of R4.8-trillion in funding to offset the damage caused by the pandemic.
The natural disasters that have battered the planet in recent months are just a glimpse into the future that awaits us if we do not act vigorously and with urgency to mitigate climate change. Africa, which is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture, is already bearing the brunt of the ecological destruction and natural disasters.
South Africa’s coastline flanks the Indo-Pacific region which has become the epicentre of great power rivalry between the United States and China. Tensions are rising over greater Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the countervailing emergence of new security alliances between the US, India, Australia, Japan and the UK. The US has stationed forces in Taiwan amid increased Chinese warplanes flying into the island’s defence zone and President Xi Jinping’s vow to reunify Taiwan and China
This unfolding struggle for dominance, including a global technology competition, is exerting pressure on smaller Pacific and Indian Ocean powers and extends into Africa. At the same time, second-tier powers such as Russia, Turkey, the UAE, India and Israel have joined China, the US and the former colonial powers in the race for influence in Africa.
Geography and history has decided that South Africa will be a player, whether we like it or not.
The question is whether — armed with neither the military power that made apartheid South Africa a stalwart western ally in the Cold War or the moral vision that lent us a special standing post-1994 — we still have a unique role to play in the troubled world of 2021.
In order to answer that, we need to go back to the first principles.
Two things shape foreign policy in the modern age: values and interests. Interests go to the material wellbeing of our people in economics and security, and to our sovereignty as a nation. How do our foreign relations make us safer and more prosperous and keep us free from domination?
Values derive from our cultures, our beliefs and our religions, and the long and often brutal arc of South Africa’s history that produced one of the most progressive and beautiful constitutions in the world.
How can we, in this new age, formulate a foreign policy that both protects our interests and projects our values?
During the apartheid era South Africa’s status as a global pariah drove a ruthless emphasis on protecting the interests of the white minority. This was done by skirting and end-running embargoes and sanctions and by a willingness to bully and intimidate South Africa’s neighbours. This policy was underlined by a powerful and aggressive military, by possessing nuclear weapons and by the cynicism that underlay Cold War alliances.
To the great relief of many throughout the world, democratic South Africa focused on “values” — more specifically human rights. Globally, our historic and peaceful transition to democracy was held up as the epitome of exemplary political leadership and nation-building, a light that has grown dimmer over the intervening decades.
During the era of Mbeki, the diplomat in chief, South Africa was reluctant to impose its values on African countries deemed to be bad actors. Instead, Mbeki was instrumental in the formation of the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), which created a multilateral structure in which African states could, through peer review, practice self-governance and hold themselves accountable.
The aim of Nepad was to promote peace and stability, democracy, economic development and people-centric development in Africa. For a while, it appeared to be on course to meet that promise — for instance applying zero tolerance to military coups. But while Nepad has been converted into an African Union development agency, the impetus for political reform has faded and many of its ambitious goals have not been met. This has coincided with South Africa stepping back from a leadership role on the continent.
While our public postures are high-minded and correct, South Africa has been reluctant to take on some of the thornier questions. We have been able to shelter under the collective failure of the African Union to deal with some of the continent’s most intransigent conflicts, such as the civil war in Ethiopia.
During the Zuma years, we tilted, at least at the UN, towards Russia and China. Under the current president, South Africa has pursued a pragmatic position as essential allies to all. That is sensible — there is no reason for South Africa to take sides when the major powers rumble.
There is no question that the route to our unique place in the world goes through Africa.
The best way to do that is to strengthen African economies and institutions and to forge a new solidarity across the continent.
The crippling debt of many countries, sluggish growth, civil conflicts and jihadi wars, the unregulated spread of urbanisation, youth joblessness and democratic decline all require more than ever a collective African stand.
Not only was Africa the continent most devastated by the pandemic, but its recovery is falling behind that of other regions because of the slow roll-out of vaccines. Africa is the least inoculated region in the world. Additionally, most African countries have lacked the fiscal means to stimulate their economies through the kind of measures that pulled the rest of the world out of recession.
Our interactions with the world should be aimed not just at immediate problem solving and conflict resolution, important as that is, but at correcting the global inequality and imbalances that have persisted since the time when Mbeki and Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo worked together to forge Nepad and other trans-continental initiatives — and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The goal should be simple: to promote economic growth and development, good governance, poverty alleviation and human security. The continent is stronger when it is united and when South Africa plays a leadership role.
Even as we face these problems, we need to remind ourselves that Africa is the continent of the future — by 2050 one out of three people under 24 on the planet will be Africans. African resilience and innovation stand to fundamentally change the narrative of global strength.
We live in an era of greater opportunities for cooperation, for instance in the Africa Free Trade Zone which became operational earlier this year. There are numerous collective successes on the continent such as the African CDC, which has led Africa’s response to the pandemic.
We have new partners on the continent and in the sub-region who share our democratic and human-based values and who can assist in the revival of multilateral initiatives at the African Union and SADC.
South Africa has the private sector, the universities, the technological expertise and the intellectual capital to be a leader to assist the countries of the continent to adapt and transform their economies to the new green economy to combat climate change. And as the World Bank points out, linking climate-related finance to governance reforms will mobilise resources.
At the same time, we have to recognize that given South Africa’s long seaboard, a key route for global shipping, and our position as an entry point into Africa, we are vulnerable to inducement by powers expanding their own influence. The need to defend our sovereignty and prevent a new colonialism, here and on the rest of the continent, is more critical now than at any time in the modern era.
To take on this role, the best defence of our values and interests comes down to strengthening our democracy, our institutions and the rule of law.
Instead of being in harmony, values and interests have sometimes collided with each other. After the Sun City deal of 2003 in which Mbeki brokered peace between the warring parties in the DRC, a South African company with links to the ruling party emerged with oil blocks next to Lake Albert. This led to an ongoing dispute that has left the DRC with a budget-crushing $600-million debt before even a single drop of oil has been produced.
This suspicion of side interests profiting off the back of international cooperation has been repeated elsewhere on the continent in multiple deals. If we export a version of State Capture into the rest of the continent, we will undermine our best efforts to be a soft power nation.
Of course, it is completely acceptable and necessary for our foreign service to support legitimate business. In fact, a distance and sometimes distrust between the business community and government meant that South Africa never managed to support business in the way that the Americans and the Chinese and others support their national commercial enterprises.
There is a world of difference between creating the environment for foreign investors to bring capital, technology and jobs to South Africa and massive energy deals of dubious provenance where there is suspicion that billions of rands will be siphoned off while making the country indebted to foreign powers.
This points to one thing: the best way to fix our foreign policy is to get our act together at home. South Africa needs to focus on poverty and inequality, on ending corruption and lawlessness, on economic growth, and on forging a sense of national unity.
For all this to happen, there must be decisive leadership, policy coherence, national security and a strengthening of our investment case.
That way we can be effective leaders and good citizens in Africa and a pillar of a just and democratic global order to stand strong in the storms ahead. DM
Mcebisi Jonas is MTN group chairman and former deputy finance minister of South Africa.
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